The Potteries Of Stoke-On-Trent
By Matilda Sturley
As the train pulled out of Euston and headed north, the tall, clustered buildings quickly turned to countryside. Trees whistled past the train, which was filled with passengers heading North towards Manchester. I was, however, heading to Stoke-on-Trent for a jam-packed expedition of potteries and museums. Passing chocolate box villages and big brick towns before the train slowed to a stop in the red-brick city of Stoke-on-Trent.
Known across the world as The Potteries, with over three hundred years of ceramic heritage, it seemed the perfect place to venture a trip to discover more about ceramics. I will assume you like me have had a long love affair with ceramics, perhaps a love affair which has been little one-sided, handed ceramic plates and mugs from childhood without much consideration of their journey or history. Now that has all changed, I am in the midst of launching my own lamp brand (Legato), and hopefully, ceramics will play a part. So, of course, there is no better place to start than a pilgrimage to Stoke on Trent.
The pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent began in the mid-seventeenth century in an unassuming way. Still, with the abundance of local coal and clay, the industry grew, and the city became the flagship site for the ceramic industry. With huge investment from Josiah Wedgwood, who invested £10,000 (about £4 million today) of his own money to build the canal in 1761. The canal enabled the simple importation and exportation of goods and helped the pottery industry to thrive.
One of the potteries that sit alongside this canal is Middleport Pottery, one of the last remaining Victorian potteries still in production in Stoke-on-Trent—still using all the same practices as their forbears, though with one major difference. The bottle-top potteries, which Stoke-on-Trent once had in abundance, have been replaced with gas and electric kilns since the Clean Air Act came into effect in 1956. Since the act was enforced in the UK, the ceramics industry saw a major decline, with over 300 potteries creating wares at the turn of the twentieth century in Stoke-on-Trent, to just a handful remaining to this day. But Middleport Pottery remains intact, with the original red bricks and mortar holding the site together, you feel as though you're stepping back into a key element of history.
In more recent years, Stoke-on-Trent has seen new pottery residences moving in. The well-known brand of Emma Bridgewater moved their iconic polka dots, stars and hearts patterns into the area in 1985 and have remained at the same factory ever since. If you happen to find yourself in the area of Stoke-on-Trent, do look in at the factory and consider the Factory Tour, which I did, and it was brilliant. Discovering the skill, detail and experience that goes into making a single Emma Bridgewater mug is a humbling experience, with employees learning the necessary skills over eighteen months.
But as I was told by a local during my visit, those from Stoke-on-Trent are known to have 'clay in their veins'. Not literally, but in terms of living, loving and probably at times, loathing the material that has shaped their city. Those local to Stoke carry pride with them for their city and its heritage, which manifests as the 'Turnover Club'. A regional and cultural 'club' which sees its members checking the base of ceramic ware wherever they are across the world for the familiar 'made in Stoke-on-Trent' stamp.
I was also lucky enough to fit in visits to the Gladstone Pottery Museum and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, which showcased the rich history of Stoke-on-Trent and wider Staffordshire ceramics. Gladstone, being one of the oldest potteries in the city, no longer operates as a factory, but instead, I was able to explore the site and watch demonstrations from the resident ceramicists, who were showcasing their slip-casting and hand-building skills.
The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, permanent ceramics collection, hosts antiquities dating from the Neolithic to the present day. From Majolica to Arts & Crafts and, of course, their resident celebrity Ozzy Owl who burst onto the world stage in 1990 in an episode of Antique Roadshow. Ozzy's owner had been using the excellent example of late 17th Century slipware as a flower pot and was aghast when Henry Sandon gave the valuation of £20,000. It came to the Roadshow on a bus and made its way home in a taxi. Later that year it was sold by Philips Auction house for £22,000 to the museum, where it now sits waiting to be admired.
A huge thank you to Middleport Pottery, the Emma Bridgewater Factory, Gladstone Pottery Museum and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery for their time and knowledge about Stoke-on-Trent!